Northern First Nation Celebrates Biden’s Move to Protect Sacred Caribou Grounds

Credit to Author: Lori Fox| Date: Fri, 22 Jan 2021 18:08:22 GMT

Environmentalists and a northern First Nation, the Gwich’in, are praising U.S. President Joe Biden’s executive order placing a temporary moratorium on oil and natural gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The move signals a pause in four years of U.S. policy that, under former president Donald Trump, sought to capitalize on the estimated 10.2 billion barrels of oil thought to be contained in a 1.5 million acre strip of coastal plains within the wildlife refuge. The area is also home to the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, whose vast yearly migration the Gwich’in people have relied on for centuries.

The Gwich’in consider the calving grounds—referred to as Gwandaii Goodlit, the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins”—holy. Any threat to it, or to the Porcupine caribou, is perceived as not only an attack on to their traditional way of life, but an affront to the soul of their nation.

“I am in my glory today,” said Vuntut Gwitchin Elder Lorrainne Netro, a long-time advocate for the protection of the region. (The Vuntut Gwitchin are centred in Old Crow, a fly-in only Gwich’in community in Yukon.)

Netro said she had been feeling “a lot of fear, especially in the last few weeks,” around what might happen with the calving grounds. She shed “tears of joy and relief” at the news of the moratorium, which she calls an act of “courage” and a message from the White House that Biden “has chosen to listen to the Gwich’in people and stands with the Gwich’in people.”

The Gwich’in people are an expansive First Nation whose people and traditional territory sprawls from Alaska into Yukon and the Northwest Territories; they are one nation, artificially divided by the Canadian and U.S. border, a matter which complicates caribou management issues.

The Alaska-based Gwich’in Steering Committee released a statement shortly after the moratorium was announced, thanking Biden for “taking action to protect sacred lands” in the wildlife refuge.

Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, a proponent of drilling in the refuge, decried the move.

“At a time when the United States, and especially Alaska, is struggling to deal with the impacts of COVID-19, I am astounded to see that the Biden administration’s ‘Day One’ priority is put our economy, jobs, and nation’s security at risk,” Murkowski said in a press statement.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been considered for oil exploration on and off since its unofficial inception in 1960, but was off-limits until 2017, when the Trump government officially opened it up to leasing and exploration.  Although the moratorium offers a temporary ceasefire, the protections placed on the region can be rapidly eroded under U.S. policy.

The decision came just days after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management held its first sale of leases of leases in the area, for which no official guidance has yet been received.

Permanently protecting the area for generations to come is “still the dream,” said Malkolm Boothroyd, campaign coordinator for Canadian Parks And Wilderness Society Yukon.

Boothroyd said that although there is still a lot of work to do, he takes solace in the fact that even with the area open to leasing for the last four years, environmentalists and the Gwich’in were able to “hold the line” and keep development out.

“There is still a lot of work ahead, and we will not stop until our sacred lands are permanently protected, but today we are taking a moment to breathe a sigh of relief,” said Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tram in a statement.

Netro said her community has faced a lot of struggle over the past year, but noted that “even COVID did not stop us” when it came to protecting the refuge.

“We continue to educate people from the south and beyond that don't understand how important this issue is for us,” said Netro. “Our lives are at stake, and our cultural and traditional way of life depends on a decision that’s being made in the United States.”

 “This gives us hope.”

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